Trust: Using Conflict to Our Benefit


During my years in the consulting business, I’ve seen a variety of interesting things happen. Some of it, as the late Johnny Carson might say, “weird, wild stuff” Naturally, a fun story or two has emerged from all of this, and one of the prominent story themes is conflict.

Conflict among groups and individuals can be troublesome, and is often regarded as a hindrance by Project Managers, Change Managers, Performance Managers, etc. But conflict can also provide a way to reach the best outcome. One example from PMI says: “when a team argues the merits of various project implementation strategies, it is likely that in the course of their deliberations it will uncover more information than they would if they came to immediate agreement.” So, how do we get past fighting, and use conflict to our benefit?

Trust is a Force

In order to take competitive advantage of conflict, we need to develop trust. Not only is trust is the key to successful use of conflict (see TableGroup), it’s almost like an unseen force that holds us together through difficult times. To rephrase the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Trust is what gives a team it’s power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together." OK, maybe the “galaxy binding” is a stretch, but you get the point. Trust is the thing that allows us to benefit from conflict.

But, what exactly does it mean to trust? Trust is something many of us know when we see it, but struggle to define. As I recently listened to a podcast that featured the work of David Horsager, specifically, his book entitled “The Trust Edge”, I was struck by a definition he gave.

Trust is the confident belief in an entity

  • To do what is right

  • To deliver what is promised

  • To be the same every time no matter the circumstances

Trust: The Details

Horsager’s definition of trust is fine. It’s practical, and can be applied successfully in most working situations. The biggest challenge with the definition is in determining “what is right”. Rightness varies so much, based on a person's strongly held beliefs. A conversation with a fellow consultant yielded another way to look at this. Some would describe the quality of sincerity in determining whether someone will “do what is right”. Sincerity is associated with ethics, commitment, and how much a person cares about outcomes.

How can managers build trust?

As leaders, a great way to establish our sincerity, and instill trust as an attribute of our organizations, is to cultivate authentic relationships among, and with our team members. Managers who practice self awareness, and develop listening skills are better equipped to manage disagreements respectfully, to find compromise, and reach the best outcomes.

  • Make a habit of making promises, and keeping them. Start small, and follow through! This can be as simple as sticking to commitments to respond to emails, or attend meetings. Your consistency will not go unnoticed, and you’ll be building trust at a foundational level.

  • Show genuine interest in others. Sometimes it’s just listening. You don’t have to get too deep, or be a psychologist to show interest in people. It’s surprising how wrapped up in our own heads we sometimes get. You’ll be amazed at the impact being heard can have in developing trust.

  • Be open. Share something about yourself. Obviously, we need to set logical boundaries, but revealing personal details of your life, will make relationships with your teams more personable.

  • In times of conflict, the field of neuroscience supports the old adage “count to ten”. Often, our first impulse in the face of conflict is to repeat our views (at a slightly higher volume). To build trust, listen first. You may learn something, and you’ll be modeling a great behavior for others! For more on neuroscience and conflict management check out this interesting piece

Remember, conflict is often what leads to improvement in an organization. Through disagreements, the path to improvement may be revealed in a novel (and previously unknown) way. And, trust is the key ingredient to making conflict work to our benefit.